Merle Oberon, the Actor Who Passed for White

The first Asian to be nominated for a Best Actress Oscar maintained a lie she would take to her grave. Who was she really?

Merle Oberon (Getty Images)

Mehr Singh


February 17, 2023


13 min

In Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an inky-haired, alabaster-skinned Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) primps her hair while awaiting execution. She nonchalantly asks her attendant, Lady Marbury, “Will the net hold my hair together when my head falls?” Lady Marbury nods, sobbing. “Isn’t it a pity to lose a head like this?” asks Boleyn, completely unfazed. 

With her almond-shaped eyes and dark hair, Oberon looked nothing like British film’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired actors of the time. Two years later, she landed in Hollywood, receiving high praise for her restrained acting. Oberon, with her “exotic,” “breathtakingly beautiful” features and a curious accent — was both an outsider and an enigma.

Merle Oberon would become the first biracial woman to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actress category for The Dark Angel (1935), but, at the time and for years after her death in 1979, news of her South Asian and Maori heritage would remain hidden. Oberon would move from India to England to America, star in several big-budget Hollywood and British films as the lead, raise two children, get married four times (and divorced thrice) — all while holding on to a secret she took to the grave. Who was Merle Oberon exactly?

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